Djokovic secures year-end No. 1 ranking for record-extending 8th time by beating Rune at ATP Finals

Djokovic secures year-end No. 1 ranking for record-extending 8th time by beating Rune at ATP Finals
Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning the first round-robin match against Denmark's Holger Rune at the ATP Finals tennis tournament in Turin on Sunday. (AFP)
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Updated 13 November 2023
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Djokovic secures year-end No. 1 ranking for record-extending 8th time by beating Rune at ATP Finals

Djokovic secures year-end No. 1 ranking for record-extending 8th time by beating Rune at ATP Finals
  • Djokovic: It was a very emotional and tough win because of the significance of tonight’s match
  • After this tournament, Djokovic will become the first player to hold No. 1 for 400 weeks, with Roger Federer at 310 the only other man to eclipse the 300-week mark

TURIN, Italy: Novak Djokovic has secured the year-end No. 1 ranking for a record-extending eighth time.

Djokovic needed only one match win at the ATP Finals to be sure of keeping the top spot and the 24-time Grand Slam champion did it in his opener, beating Holger Rune 7-6 (4), 6-7 (1), 6-3 over more than three hours on Sunday and into Monday morning.

“It was a very emotional and tough win because of the significance of tonight’s match,” Djokovic said. “That was added pressure, and attention.”

“It means a lot,” Djokovic added. “You could see there was a lot of emotions on the court. I could feel it. I was very eager to win tonight’s match and get that monkey off my back.”

The 36-year-old Djokovic had already moved ahead of previous record holder Pete Sampras (six years at No. 1) two years ago.

Carlos Alcaraz took the honors last year.

After this tournament, Djokovic will become the first player to hold No. 1 for 400 weeks, with Roger Federer at 310 the only other man to eclipse the 300-week mark.

If Djokovic raises the trophy next weekend, he’ll break a tie with Federer and capture a record seventh title at the finals.

“A big goal is achieved; everything else now is a bonus,” Djokovic said.

Djokovic has won 19 straight matches stretching back to his five-set loss to Alcaraz in the Wimbledon final in July.

Earlier in the same group, Jannik Sinner beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-4.

Djokovic ended a close first set with a blazing forehand return winner — then flexed his right biceps and held the pose for a few moments before unleashing an authoritative fist pump.

The 20-year-old Rune was making his debut at the season-ending tournament for the year’s top eight players and pushed Djokovic to a deciding set for a fourth straight time in five career meetings.

Djokovic also beat Rune in three tight sets at the Paris Masters this month.

After Djokovic gave up an early break in the third, he broke two rackets with his foot before sitting down for the changeover. But he quickly regained his composure — and the lead — before finishing the match off shortly after midnight.

SINNER’S SERENADE

“Olé, Olé, Olé Olé, Sin-ner, Sin-ner.”

The way the crowd serenaded Sinner after his brisk win over Tsitsipas in the opening match of the tournament made it sound like a soccer stadium inside the Turin arena.

Before the Italian could respond during an on-court interview, fans started singing his name so loudly that all he could do was step back, smile and say, “Grazie.”

“The feeling is this,” Sinner said. “Kind of a football stadium. Also with the roof closed, it’s a little bit louder. It’s nice. It means that the people, they really care about me.”

Under an enormous spotlight as the poster boy for the tournament, Sinner didn’t show any nerves at the season-ending event for the year’s top eight players.

Supported by chants of “Vai Jannik” (“Go Jannik”) and signs that read “Facci Sognare” (“Let us dream”), Sinner gave the fans just what they came for with his blistering baseline shots and strong serve.

The 22-year-old Sinner is finishing up a year in which he has claimed four titles including his first Masters 1000 trophy and is up to a career-high No. 4 in the rankings — the first Italian that high since Adriano Panatta nearly a half-century ago.

Sinner even showed off some of his newfound touch when he produced a backhand topspin lob winner while on the run early in the second set.

Then on his first match point, Sinner spun an ace out wide on the deuce court to finish the match off in 1 hour, 25 minutes.

It was Sinner’s tour-leading 14th win indoors this year — against just one loss.

“The match went really, really well and the crowd support was crazy,” Sinner said. “It’s not just about improvement, it’s about destinations and the destination I wanted to reach this year was to be here.”

Sinner served nine aces to Tsitsipas’ six amid fast conditions inside the Pala Alpitour and didn’t face a single break point.

“He definitely has improved his serve, and he showed it today,” Tsitsipas said. “There wasn’t much I could do. I was trying to guess sometimes. He serves really close to the lines, to the corners. ... I’m not the Elastigirl from the superheroes to be behind these balls.”

Tsitsipas, the 2019 champion, had cut short a practice session on Friday due to an apparent physical issue but he said he was “absolutely fine.”

Matches in the other group on Monday feature Carlos Alcaraz vs. Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev vs. Andrey Rublev.

The top two finishers in each group advance to the semifinals.


Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality

Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality
Updated 22 February 2024
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Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality

Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality
  • The response from Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar was swift, describing their views as “outdated” and “Western-centric”
  • Talented players of different age groups are being cultivated

RIYADH: When former tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert decided to question the Women’s Tennis Association’s ties with Saudi Arabia, they failed to take into account how far tennis, and women’s sports in general, have come in recent years, and the level of empowerment that female athletes have been afforded in that time.
The response from Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar was swift, describing their views as “outdated” and “Western-centric.”
Tunisian star Ons Jabeur, a strong supporter of Arab and Saudi tennis, said critics should be “more informed.”
Indeed, anyone keeping an eye on the development of Saudi tennis in recent years will know how different the reality is to those negative stereotypes.
Talented players of different age groups are being cultivated.
Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago through her two older brothers, before her father began training with her.
Today, Bukary boasts some impressive achievements. She represented Saudi Arabia in the Kingdom’s first-ever participation in the Billie Jean King Cup in 2023, took home a silver medal during the 2022 Saudi Games, and followed that up with a bronze last year.
“I was the only Saudi on the podium, so that was pretty exciting,” Bukary told Arab News.
“I just want to be able to represent my country and, hopefully, get some titles, international tournaments, and grow as a tennis player.”
Among tennis circles in Saudi Arabia, 8-year-old Sama Al-Bakr is a name on many people’s lips, her undoubted potential symbolizing just what the future of Saudi women’s tennis could offer.
“She’s the only one in the Al-Bakr family that plays this sport,” her father, Ali Al-Bakr, told Arab News.
Hailing from Alkhobar in the Eastern Province, Sama has already rubbed shoulders with tennis greats such as Novak Djokovic when he visited during the Riyadh Season in late 2023.
She described being “happy, surprised, excited” when offered the opportunity to play with him and “beat him with the backhand.”
In September, Sama came first in a regional aged 7-10 mixed boys and girl’s tennis tournament.
After she was invited to participate, her father was told she would be playing among boys, in case he had any objections. Her father said that, on the contrary, his only thoughts were “I’m happy for the challenge and I feel sorry for these boys.”
The goal for Sama “is definitely going to be an international level,” Al-Bakr said.
He added that the “sky is the limit in the future,” and his daughter has the potential to become “the first Saudi girl who will play in Wimbledon as she promised.”
In Riyadh, 24-year-old Maha Kabbani has been playing tennis since seeing a Rafael Nadal match on television at the age of 9.
Like Bukary and young Sama, family support played a crucial role in her love for tennis.
Kabbani’s role model is her brother, who from a young age nurtured her passion for tennis and encouraged her to pursue a career in the sport.
“We used to train, me and my brother, at home and we started hitting the walls and then we got a tennis net,” she told Arab News.
“My family is the biggest supporter. They saw my passion, they saw the light inside me. Tennis has put such a light inside me that it made me shine,” Kabbani added.
From practicing with her brother in a make-do tennis court built in their small garden to training at Tennis Home Academy in Riyadh, Kabbani’s tennis journey highlights the transformative role played by Saudi Arabia’s post-2016 social reforms.
“I remember being 9 years old and trying to find a court. We could barely have one court, let alone academies. So, that’s huge progress,” she told Arab News.
“Right now, we are living our dreams and meeting the people that inspired us when we were younger.”
Kabbani said that past obstacles are now firmly behind them, and this is the “perfect time” for women and girls in the country to get involved in tennis.
“This is the perfect motivation,” she said.
The Saudi Tennis Federation is currently headed by a woman, Arij Almutabagani.
“We deserve to live our dreams, and see this progress and we deserve to enjoy our passion,” Kabbani said.


Swiatek beats Svitolina to book quarterfinal spot at Dubai Tennis Championships

Swiatek beats Svitolina to book quarterfinal spot at Dubai Tennis Championships
Iga Swiatek is through to the quarterfinals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships after beating Elina Svitolina. (WTA)
Updated 22 February 2024
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Swiatek beats Svitolina to book quarterfinal spot at Dubai Tennis Championships

Swiatek beats Svitolina to book quarterfinal spot at Dubai Tennis Championships
  • World No.1 joins Gauff, Zheng, Vondrousova, Rybakina, Paolini, Cirstea, and Kalinskaya in final eight — with none having won before in Dubai
  • Australian Open finalist Zheng defeated Potapova in straight sets in final match of the night to set up clash with Swiatek

DUBAI: World No.1 Iga Swiatek saw off No.15 seed and two-time former champion Elina Svitolina in the third round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Wednesday night, and in doing so guaranteed a new name will appear on the trophy at this year’s WTA 1000 tournament.

Taking her winning streak in the Middle East this month to six successive matches, Swiatek beat her Ukrainian opponent in straight sets 6-1, 6-4 to progress to the quarterfinals, where she now faces Zheng.

While Svitolina secured back-to-back titles here in 2017 and 2018, Swiatek, Zheng and the other six players remaining in the tournament — Coco Gauff, Sorana Cirstea, Marketa Vondrousova, Elena Rybakina, Jasmine Paolini, and Anna Kalinskaya — are all gunning for a maiden title.

Under the center court lights on Wednesday, last week’s Doha champion Swiatek won seven consecutive games from 1-1 in the first set to race into a one-set lead in a little under 30 minutes. The two players had met only twice previously, most recently at last year’s quarterfinals stage of Wimbledon. On that occasion, it was Svitolina who came out on top, but it never looked likely in Dubai, even if the three-time Grand Slam semifinalist showed added fight in a more balanced second set that featured five service breaks.

“I felt like she played better in the second set,” said Swiatek, who credited her own decision-making and placement as the key reasons for her victory. “It wasn’t that easy to just finish points and win points; I wanted to stay focused and proactive, and kind of make decisions, but not too risky. We were both good in the longer rallies, so I needed to really push in the right time to make pressure.”

Swiatek has now won 25 of her past 26 matches and is on a 13-match winning streak against top 20 players. Arriving fresh from completing a trio of titles in Qatar, she was asked whether the fact she has never won in the Emirates changes her approach or even provides added motivation to continue that winning streak and lift the title.

“For sure, when you’re going into the tournament and you have won it before, you feel more comfortable — you feel like you’re home,” she said. “On the other hand, it can give you more pressure. At the beginning of Doha I felt being double defending champion was pretty stressful, but when you start a tournament and you haven’t won it, you don’t really think about winning — you just think about the first match that you’re going to play and that’s all.”

That being the case, having advanced to the last eight in Dubai for the second year in a row, Swiatek’s thoughts can now turn to Australian Open finalist Zheng and their match on Thursday. The pair have faced each other five times, with Swiatek holding a flawless record against the Chinese right-hander. Yet Zheng’s progress to the final in Melbourne suggests a scintillating contest may await.

“She’s progressing, but I felt like I could still play good tennis against her,” said Swiatek about their last meeting, at the United Cup in Perth in January. “I don’t know about the Australian Open because I didn’t see any of her matches. When I lost, I just completely cut off any tennis from my life, so it’s hard for me to say. She’s at this moment in her career — everybody is when they’re 21, 22, 23 — when they’re improving a lot, so it’s normal.”

World No.7 Zheng booked her place in the last eight by defeating Anastasia Potapova in straight sets 6-3, 6-2. Zheng has now won 26 of her last 27 matches against players outside the top 20 with the sole loss in that time coming last week to Leylah Fernandez. 

“I think my opponent played well today on the court, and I just played my tennis and everything went well for me,” said the No.6 seed. “Today I played the right way. When I had to attack, I attacked; when I had to defend, I defended. I’m really happy to be in the quarters for the first time in Dubai.”

A two-time winner on tour, Zheng’s tie with Swiatek represents her third WTA 1000 quarterfinal. On the prospect of trying to get a first win over the four-time Grand Slam winner, she said: “(Iga’s) a very solid player, and always there in the match. If I’m going to beat her, I have to make it a game. She’s always tough to beat and you always have to be alert when you play against her.”


Tennis can champion equal pay across all sports: US Open champ Coco Gauf

Tennis can champion equal pay across all sports: US Open champ Coco Gauf
Updated 20 February 2024
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Tennis can champion equal pay across all sports: US Open champ Coco Gauf

Tennis can champion equal pay across all sports: US Open champ Coco Gauf
  • The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which run until March 2, introduced an equal pay policy for its WTA event in 2005
  • Reigning Flushing Meadows champion and world No. 3 Gauff reached the semifinals of last year’s WTA 1000 event in Dubai

DUBAI: World No. 3 Coco Gauff believes tennis can “be the leader” in promoting equal pay across all sports — with the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships among the WTA competitions to have implemented an equitable policy.

The Dubai Tennis Championships introduced this policy in 2005, becoming the first non-Grand Slam and third professional tennis event to do so after the US and Australian opens.

Last summer, the WTA also approved a plan to achieve equal pay across the tennis calendar by 2033. As part of the proposal, all tournaments at the 500 and 1000 level that feature both men and women will pay players equally by 2027.

Speaking during a press conference on Monday ahead of her fourth appearance in Dubai, the 2023 US Open champion discussed the gender pay gap: “For me, I think the biggest thing is that in most sports in the world, people watch the men’s game more than the women’s. I think we continue to bring fans. The problem is also that we have to market women’s sports better, market ourselves better.

“(Over) the past couple years, I feel like the marketing for women’s sports has been invested more in, and therefore there’s been more watchability for people. If we continue to invest in women’s sports, then it will profit almost the same as the men, and garner equal pay.”

“I’m grateful for (tennis). On most tournaments on the tour, the Grand Slams obviously, we have equal pay,” Gauff added. “Hopefully tennis can be the leader of that and fiddle down into other sports, as well.”

Meanwhile, the 19-year-old tennis sensation admitted she has altered her mindset to be more positive amid adversity after previously dwelling on defeats too much in the past.

“I lost in Doha, but the next day I did a desert excursion, which is something that I would never have done in the past because when I lose, I usually dwell on it too long,” Gauff explained. “I think that can be mentally tolling. You do lose a lot. You lose more than you win, especially in tennis.

“For me, I’ve been just trying to enjoy the other aspects in life, other than that. Just listening to your body, listening to your mind. If you feel like you need to miss a tournament, miss it. For me, I’ll always try to play as much as I can while being healthy.”


Ostapenko win returns her to WTA top 10 and round of 32 spot in Dubai

Ostapenko win returns her to WTA top 10 and round of 32 spot in Dubai
Updated 20 February 2024
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Ostapenko win returns her to WTA top 10 and round of 32 spot in Dubai

Ostapenko win returns her to WTA top 10 and round of 32 spot in Dubai
  • In-form 2022 champion needed three sets to beat Wang at Dubai Tennis Stadium but ties Rybakina as player with most wins on tour this season

DUBAI: Jelena Ostapenko celebrated her return to the world’s top 10 on Monday by overcoming Xiyu Wang 5-7, 6-2, 6-3 at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships to progress to the round of 32.

The powerful Latvian, champion in the emirate in 2022, jumped to world No. 9 when the WTA published its latest rankings on Monday morning — her highest since 2018. Yet she was made to fight by Chinese qualifier Wang, who delivered 11 aces during a match that lasted a little more than two hours.

The victory saw Ostapenko, who already has two titles in 2024 following wins in Adelaide and Linz, tie with Elena Rybakina for the most victories on the WTA Tour this season. The 2017 French Open champion, who will face Lulu Sun in Tuesday’s second round, is not getting ahead of herself though.

“It’s just the start of the season,” she said, smiling. “I mean, I worked really hard in pre-season. I felt like the past few years the game was kind of there, but not very consistent. Now I’m just trying to play a little bit more aggressive. It sounds funny, but in deciding moments I feel like I was not doing that the right way the past few years. I feel like now I’m doing it better.”

At last year’s WTA 1000 event, Ostapenko arrived as reigning champion yet found herself playing on side courts early in the tournament having fallen down the rankings. This year, back on center court from the start, she channeled her growing confidence to overcome blustery conditions, and secure safe passage to the next round.

“I honestly love to play on the big courts much more than on the small courts,” she added. “I feel like that is what tennis players are there for … but you have to be consistently in the top five to get to play on the big courts. Today I was not really playing my best game, but even when it didn’t go my way, I was just trying to find my game rather than just going through the motions and missing even more. Even in very tough conditions I managed to win, so I feel like that’s what is helping to build the confidence.”

Later in the day, two-time Dubai champion Elina Svitolina also progressed to the round of 32 after beating Ukrainian compatriot Anhelina Kalinina in straight sets 6-3, 7-6 on center court. The world No. 20 won the first set comfortably, securing 93 percent of her points on her first service and holding her serve throughout. Kalinina fought back in the second to level the set at 6-6, but a defiant Svitolina triumphed 9-7 in the tiebreak.

“It’s a great feeling to be back” said the three-time Grand Slam semifinalist, who won the Dubai title in 2017 and 2018. “I’m happy to be back in the city and back on center court. I have so many great memories winning here twice and being back brings me a lot of joy. I’m really happy to get through the first round.”

Monday’s match marked Svitolina’s first since being forced to retire from the fourth round of the Australian Open due to a back injury, but she said she feels lucky to have managed to recover so rapidly as she prepares to take on Germany’s Tatjana Maria.

“It’s been extremely tough because I felt really good in Australia,” Svitolina added. “It was really tough mentally, but I’ve tried to bounce back quickly. I tried to find happy moments at home. I’m lucky to have my family and good people around me who helped me to be back on track quickly. To be fair, I’m really lucky to be here having recovered that quickly.”

Monday’s opening match on center court saw two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka ease past the Netherlands’ Arantxa Rus 6-2, 6-4 in near-perfect conditions. Azarenka’s comfortable win secured an eye-catching second-round clash with Kazakhstan’s Rybakina, the tournament’s fourth seed.

Meanwhile on court one, Canada’s Leylah Fernandez — who enjoys strong support in Dubai on account of her Filipina lineage — dispatched American qualifier Bernarda Pera 6-3, 6-2 in just under 80 minutes. Blocking Fernandez’s route to the third round is Italy’s Jasmine Paolini, who defeated the event’s No. 11 seed Beatriz Haddad Maia, of Brazil, in three sets on Sunday.


Sloane Stephens talks Dubai return, taking on Iga Swiatek, and race to qualify for Paris Olympics

Sloane Stephens talks Dubai return, taking on Iga Swiatek, and race to qualify for Paris Olympics
Updated 19 February 2024
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Sloane Stephens talks Dubai return, taking on Iga Swiatek, and race to qualify for Paris Olympics

Sloane Stephens talks Dubai return, taking on Iga Swiatek, and race to qualify for Paris Olympics
  • American’s appearances at the Qatar Open and the Dubai Tennis Championships are her first in the Middle East for 10 years
  • Former US Open champ and French Open finalist faces world No. 1 Swiatek in the 2nd round in Dubai on Tuesday, after a 1st-round exit in Doha

DUBAI: Sloane Stephens is not planning to retire any time soon but said her return to Dubai for the first time in 10 years was inspired in part by an urge to “make the rounds” and ensure she did not miss out on the chance to compete again in the UAE before eventually hanging up her tennis racket.

A former US Open champion and French Open finalist, Stephens currently ranks 41st in the world and is searching for a return to the form that helped her hit a career high of No. 3 in 2018.

She had not competed in the Middle East since 2014 before making the trip to the Arabian Gulf this month, first contesting the Qatar Open in Doha before heading to the Dubai Tennis Championships, where she will take on world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in a highly anticipated second-round match on Tuesday.

“I’m just trying something different this year,” Stephens said of her decision to compete in Doha and Dubai. “Obviously I’m getting a bit older so I just kind of want to make the rounds. I think sometimes you have to change it up to get different results. So I was like, yeah, I’m going to try it. I’ve been jet-lagged for eight days but it’s fine.

“I think I am still going to play for more years but I think if I play four more years of tennis and I never come back here, I’d be like, I probably should have done it. So I don’t want to have any regrets looking back.

“Obviously 10 years is a long time. A lot has changed. Even in Doha, I was like, wow, this is like a completely different place. So it’s nice to have that reset and look at things and see how things have updated.”

Stephens usually competes in Mexico during this stretch of the season but has traded her favorite taco spots for shopping expeditions in some of Dubai’s renowned malls.

“My legs were hurting for two days after I went there,” she joked.

One of her coaches, Omar El-Kheshen, is Egyptian and Stephens chuckled when asked if he has helped provide any extra insight or advice while she has been competing in Arab countries.

“I thought it was going to, but then he started speaking English to everyone and I was like, ‘That is not why you’re here, you’re supposed to be helping us and getting the scoop,’” she said.

Stephens lost in two sets to Sorana Cirstea in the opening round of the Qatar Open. She defeated French qualifier Clara Burel in three sets on Sunday in the opening round in Dubai and faces Swiatek carrying a 0-2 head-to-head record against the Pole.

Swiatek, meanwhile, is coming off a rare “threepeat” in Doha, where she defeated Elena Rybakina in a thrilling final on Saturday to lift the trophy for the third year in a row.

“She just won the tournament the other day; obviously she’s playing really well, as always,” said Stephens. “She’s our most dominant, probably, No. 1 in the last few years. I think it will be a good match.

“I’m over my jet lag now, so hopefully I can come out and play some good tennis and just do my best. Obviously getting a win (over Burel) was super helpful … It was super windy, so I hope it’s not windy when I play here (again). I’m just going to go out and do my best and see what happens.”

As a former Grand Slam champion, Stephens knows what it takes to stand among the best players in the world but said relying on past experience does not always help.

“Sometimes it works like that and sometimes it doesn’t,” she said. “But I think that tennis is so up and down, it’s so emotional, and it’s so strategic, and the points and the week-to-week — anything could happen.

“One week you can be 50 (in the rankings), next week you can be 20, and anything changes with the snap of a finger. So I think you need to be ready for that in any circumstance. One match could lead to the finals. You could fight off match points in the first round and then be in the finals of a Grand Slam.

“It’s very unpredictable, so you have to fight your way through and try to figure it out and let the good times roll when they can.”

With the 2024 Paris Olympics rapidly approaching, the race to be one of the four top-ranked US players who will qualify for the Games is on, with the cutoff date for the final rankings set for early June.

Stephens, one of seven American women in the top 50, currently ranks fifth among her compatriots, behind Coco Gauff, Jessica Pegula, Madison Keys and Emma Navarro.

“Obviously I’d love to make it (to the Olympics) but our bench is really tough; it always has been and someone always gets left out,” she said.

“We have four more months until the rankings are picked and whoever can have the best next few months is obviously going to make it. Anything can happen; you could be five (in the rankings) and someone could get injured. There’s just so many dynamics with it.

“It won’t be the end of the world if I don’t make it. But obviously Paris, playing at Roland Garros, is one of my favorite venues I’ve ever played at and done well at, so it would be nice. But I’m not going to die if I don’t make it.”